The shock of the twenties is how narrow that window of experience really is, and how inevitable it seems both at the time and afterward. At some point, it is late, too late, and you are standing on the sidewalk outside somewhere very loud. A wind is blowing. It’s the same cool, restless late-night breeze that blew on trampled nineteen-twenties lawns, dazed sixties streets, and anywhere young people gather. Nearby, someone who doesn’t smoke is smoking. An attractive stranger with a lightning laugh jaywalks between cars with a friend, making eye contact before scurrying inside. You’re far from home. It’s quiet. All at once, you have a thrilling sense of nowness, of the sheer potential of a verdant night with all these unmet people in it. For a long time after that, you think you’ll never lose this life, those dreams. But that was, as they say, then.

–Nathan Heller, The New Yorker,Semi-Charmed Life” (January 14, 2013)

I turn twenty-nine this week, so I have just 365 more days to enjoy life as a twenty-something. The sensation Heller describes here is one I’ve known intimately over the past nine years; it’s that sort of vague feeling that is especially alluring to us writers and aesthetes with good memories, and drives us to wax nostalgic at every possible turn. The experience of life is so rich and vivid that reaching ages when such spontaneity seems harder and harder feels like a genuine loss, even as we tell ourselves we’ll be able to bring it back on command. (If my New Year’s rotation of friend groups from every stage of life through my apartment is any guide, it’s something I can indeed do.)

I won’t pretend otherwise: I idolize youth. It may seem an odd fixation for someone with a risk-averse, intellectual bent and a mild Luddite streak. But it’s undeniable, and courses through my fondness for a high school sport, through my fiction, through the commitments that keep me at my work each day, believing in better options for the kids in the communities I work in. I don’t think the inevitable march of age is any reason not to revel in youth for as long as possible, and perhaps because I picture youth as a state of progression through stages of awareness and not some static state of innocence or naïveté, I’m not one who thinks it must be cast aside with time.

Those who know me well wouldn’t find it hard to concoct some sort of Freudian theory as to why I might think all of this, but I also just like kids. I’m drawn to the energy of people who haven’t been beaten down by routines, who still can see the potential of the future; for that matter, give me angst-ridden explosions of emotion over the resigned apathy of people committed to their paths in work and in life any day. This joie de vivre lies somewhere at the heart of my idea of the good life, and I will always be happiest around people who share it.

As I bring this mad, wandering past decade to a close, I have plenty of lost time I could lament; at twenty-seven, a birthday that left me oddly depressed, I did plenty of that. This time, though, I can take some time to marvel at it all, and know that I’m taking the best of it and putting it to some use. So here’s to twenty-nine, and to that thrilling sense of nowness, and to everything that may yet come in moments like that, even as I age. May those dreams continue for years to come.


The Last First Day

Tomorrow I start what will probably be my last year of formal education. Once I’m done, I’ll have spent 19 of the past 21 years in school, and there was never any doubt during that two-year gap that I’d be going back for something, somewhere. While I’m ready to get on with life and head into the full-time work world, it’s still the end of an era.

I’m the son of a professor and a librarian, so it’s probably no great surprise that I enjoy school. The environment I grew up in took school success so naturally I never really needed to be pushed to do well there. It’s always been home, a place where I am at ease, and I’m fiercely loyal to the schools I’ve attended, even if I am sometimes critical of them. Sure, I can see the flaws in everything, but I’ll still scowl at anything or anyone who might besmirch their reputations. They made me who I am. I spend some of my free time reading up on education, learning about other schools, and speculating idly on the pretentious books and philosophies I’ll subject my own children to someday. School is in my blood.

There’s something especially warm and familiar about the first few weeks in fall, when the weather is still warm and the grind has yet to start. It all seems fresh, a comforting cycle that will always be there for us. It is this renewed promise incarnate, passed from generation to generation, that gives life the edge it needs to push toward greatness, and at the same time allows us to descend into the recesses of our minds where we sort out who we are and what we stand for. I feed off that youthful energy, perhaps because I once worried I’d wasted it before finally discovering how to hold on to it.

From time to time, I’ve had people wonder why I don’t go into teaching or somewhere in the education world. I like being around high school and college-aged people, old enough to have learned a thing or two and pressed by a billion possibilities but still in possession of that youthful swagger. I enjoy passing along wisdom and making people think, and education (for now, anyway) offers stability in which one can rule over a little domain and do some good in the world, year after year. I’m confident that I could push kids to do at least a few impressive things, and a past fear of lecturing in front of people isn’t what it once was.

And yet there is no desire here. I could speculate why, with reasons ranging from my worries about the future of education to the world of campus politics to my ego. In the end, it’s probably a healthy separation: even for a voracious learner, it is important to remember that life is not like school. For too long, I labored under the delusion that all life was an exercise in getting an ‘A’ on everything. I was the poster child for a stifling quest to please, living as if some omniscient grader up in the sky was rating my every move on a 100-point scale. It’s not as if my parents or my schools forced this on me; my ambition did it all by itself. I had to be the best, and so I strove to be, whatever the cost. Later, disillusioned, it took me some time to realize that any fault didn’t lie with the ambition itself, but the way I’d directed it. It was easy to figure out what was wrong, but figuring out where to go next was an entirely different challenge.

But figure it out I did, to the extent that anyone can, and now it is time for one final year. It promises to be a packed one, with a normal course load, two jobs, two student organizations to run, my normal hockey duties, and this little blog to keep alive. It will be one last chance to enjoy the school calendar and run the gamut of on-campus events, and fix up the one or two remaining affairs I need to put in order before joining the adult world full-stop. More importantly, though, it’s a time to go all in with the people around me, the true foundation of any program, and I will have to tend to older ties as well. It will be a whirlwind, but these years of clear finality are always the most rewarding, the ones most likely to strengthen lifelong bonds and inspire deep thoughts. It’s a well I’ll return to time and again after this year, but never again will I be able to plumb its depths quite like this. Once more unto the breach, dear friends; once more.